November 19, 2017

Parrot demise no laughing matter

Although it’s only a little, swift-flying bird – barely 25 centimetres in length from the tip of its beak to the end of its long tail – it has the ability to steal hearts and minds. And the means to deny Tasmania the global certification for its timber industry the state so desperately needs.

The swift parrot flies through our consciousness like no other Tasmanian bird. It has a certain cache in wildlife terms and when it comes to talking endangered species, it leaves others like the forty-spotted pardalote and the orange-bellied parrot in its slipstream.

Unwittingly, this small bundle of bone and feathers has become the poster child of wildlife conservation and the subject of what promises to be an even more acrimonious chapter in the forest wars.

Most Tasmanians might never see this summer visitor which makes the longest migratory journey of any parrot, from breeding grounds in south-eastern Tasmania to the ironbark forests of Victoria and southern New South Wales. The parrot’s swerving, low flight makes it difficult to identify, especially as it can be confused with the much more common musk lorikeet. Its streamline shape and shimmering iridescent emerald-green plumage, mixing flashes of crimson, marks it out.

Often it only becomes apparent when it flies into windows, or is seen spread-eagled on suburban streets as roadkill. It constantly flies through the headlines, though, in both the local and national press, and this spring has seen more space than ever devoted to the darting parrot, with some good and bad news.

Shortly after it had crossed Bass Strait in September those trying to save the parrot were rocked by the news that a moratorium on logging 400,000 hectares of reserved forests including those with swift parrot habit was to be lifted by the state government. The forests targeted include an old-growth coupe on Bruny Island which has proven a mecca for national and international birdwatchers wanting to view swift parrots nesting there.

The parrot conflict is brewing again and once more conflict looks likely to spread beyond the actual bird to the whole question of the sustainably of the state’s forest practices, and whether these are acceptable to the outside world. Already there is every sign that whatever happens to just one species will have a disproportionate effect on whether or not Forest Stewardship Certification (FSC) is attained.

Forestry Tasmania’s quest to obtain certification has been stymied so far by the Forest Stewardship Council, an international not-for-profit organisation founded in 1993 to oversee “responsible forest management”. It has ruled the Tasmanian industry does not meet sufficient criteria needed for certification.

Although Forestry Tasmania says on its website it has met 91 per cent of the criteria, it accepts 10 key issues remain.  These include managing critical habitat for the swift parrot and Forestry Tasmania says it aims to meet these concerns.

The swift parrot once flew in its hundreds of thousands through the blue gum forests of south-eastern and eastern Tasmania but recent surveys suggest it is down to a mere 2000 birds at best. Last year it was listed as critically endangered.

The sublime beauty of the parrot only becomes apparent when you spend a day in the bush with those trying to save the bird, as I did recently on north Bruny Island. In scattered blue and white gum woodland nest boxes had been erected – part of a crowd-funding plan to install an initial 300 across the twin islands – and in a notable first these had been taken up by breeding parrots.

The researcher heading the swift parrot conservation program, Dejan Stojanovic, of Australian National University, is ecstatic over this development but knows it is only the first step.

“This is a Band-Aid solution and a desperate attempt to buy time for these birds by giving them a reprieve for their habitat loss,” Dr Stojanovic says. “But what we need to do long-term is preserve mature Tasmanian forest.”

Although swift parrots largely rely on blue gums for pollen and nectar food and nesting hollows during the breeding season, flowering from area to area is not consistent each year.  So nest boxes proving a success one season might remain unused the next if trees in the area are not in flower. This year researchers were able to predict a good flowering season on Bruny – prompting a concentrated nest box program there –  but there is no guarantee the birds will return to Bruny next year.

This is particularly worrying because Bruny is free of what in recent years has emerged as the most serious threat to the parrots beyond forest clearance. This is the sugar glider – an introduced species to Tasmania – which has been found to raid swift parrot nests and consume young.

“The sugar gliders take 80 per cent of chicks in forests where parrot and glider breeding overlap,” said Dr Stojanovic, adding strategies were being devised to counter the menace of the gliders.

A major achievement in parrot conservation, however, has seen not only the parrots using nest boxes for the first time but the creation of artificial nest sites.

Recently a group of volunteer arborists from the Victoria Tree Industry Organisation visited Bruny bringing their chainsaws with them, to climb trees and carve out hollows.

There is some irony in using chainsaws, the traditional enemy of the parrot, to help plot their survival but irony seems to fly on the wings of not just the “swifties”, but all parrot species. Perhaps because they mimic humans in voice, and sometimes behaviour, the parrot is an ideal vehicle for both satire and black humour. Most famously it featured in the humour of Monty Python, the subject of its dead parrot sketch, in which a dead “norwegian blue” is sold to an unsuspecting customer in a pet shop.

This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ….. you assured me that its total lack of movement was due to it bein’ tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk.

I used a few lines from the sketch in my “On the Wing” column seven years ago when perhaps the grimmest of parrot news rolled off the presses.

The then Labor environment minister David Llewellyn had caused consternation by stating the swift parrot was “virtually doomed” and “unlikely to be viable in the long term”.

Mr Llewellyn and others might have written off the parrot but events in the woodland of north Bruny prove that Lathamus disclor is refusing to lie down like the Python parrot.

And if it does succumb, it will take any hopes of reviving the Tasmanian forestry industry with it.

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